Look in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. It’s a frog. No it’s just little old Underdog or as his young master so aptly calls him “Superman with a flea collar.” In Disney’s live-action version of the 1960s animated superhero parody the canine crimebuster (voiced by Jason Lee) returns to nip at the heels of arch nemesis Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage). Unlike the cartoon Underdog who took on human characteristics this pooch keeps all four paws on the ground Except of course when he’s zooming off to save the day. And it’s all thanks to the mad scientist Barsinister that Shoeshine—Underdog’s secret identity—runs as fast as a cheetah and flies like an eagle. Shoeshine turns into the Mutt of Steel after coming into contact with a serum created by Barsinister. His transformation from zero to superhero leaves Barsinister desperate to replicate the results of this lab accident for typically evil purposes. Assuming that is he can get his hands on Shoeshine who’s already found refuge in the Capitol City home of an ex-cop (Jim Belushi) and his son Jack (Alex Neuberger). With Jack’s help Shoeshine finds his true calling as man’s best super-powered friend. Oh and when he’s not thwarting jewelry heists he’s trying to win the heart of his very own Lois Lane “Sweet” Polly Purebred (voiced by Amy Adams). But Underdog must set aside his feelings for the King Charles spaniel when Barsinister and his dimwitted henchman Cad (Patrick Warburton) attempt to extort $1 billion from Capitol City. Let the dogfight begin! How wise of Disney not to unleash a computer-generated Underdog à la Garfield or Scooby-Doo. In or out of his formfitting superhero costume Leo the Lemon Beagle deserves a big juicy bone for his energy and resourcefulness. It certainly helps that director Frederik Du Chau knows how to work with animals having previously directed Racing Stripes. Beware though: Leo’s so darn cute that your kids will beg you for a Beagle for Christmas. Jason Lee who crosses over to the side of good after voicing The Incredibles’ malevolence Syndrome makes Underdog as humble and affable as his TV alter ego Earl Hickey from My Name is Earl. Still there are times that Lee’s so laidback with his narration you’ll swear you’re watching an episode of My Name is Underdog. Amy Adams delightfully kooky in Junebug makes for a surprisingly bland Polly. Brad Garrett though makes sure the bullying Rottweiler Riff Raff’s booming bark is worse than his bite. As for the humans K-9’s Jim Belushi is once again upstaged by a canine costar and Alex Neuberger does nothing to suggest he’s got what it takes to be the next tween heartthrob. Disheveled and disfigured Peter Dinklage is suitably hammy as the maniacal man of science. A bleach-blonde Patrick Warburton continues to exploit his Seinfeld fame by playing yet another Puddy-like himbo even though this act lost its novelty many dog years ago. Superheroed out? Then it’s certainly not enough for director Frederik Du Chau to make us believe a dog can fly. That said this Underdog is more for pups than parents. If your child’s never seen an episode of Underdog they’ll certainly get a kick out of the obvious efforts to spoof Superman from our hero’s phone-booth costume changes to his struggle to retain his secret identity. Du Chau doesn’t show much imagination when it comes to chronicling Underdog’s pursuit of truth justice and the American Kennel Club’s Way but at least he gives the predictable proceedings some oomph. He also keeps the poop jokes to a bare minimum and avoids making the kind of sexual innuendos that ruined The Cat in the Hat ensuring this four-legged superhero offers nothing but good clean fun for kids who have grown tired of Ratatouille. Parents though may find themselves wishing they were watching Spider-Man 3 again. Underdog makes no effort to appeal to anyone who isn’t suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Sure those weaned on the cartoon should come away mightily impressed with Underdog’s efforts to stay as true to its source material as possible. But there are only so many times you want to hear Underdog rhyme while he fights all who rob and plunder. Kids though will certainly walk out of the theater singing the beefed-up theme song and rooting for Underdog to save another day.
Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) once a champion thoroughbred trainer and now a mild-mannered Kentucky farmer rescues an abandoned baby zebra and takes him home to his young daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere). Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz) as the adoring Channing calls him grows up on the farm with its misfit troupe of barnyard residents. They include the cantankerous but wise Tucker (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) a Shetland pony; Franny (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) a motherly old goat who keeps the farm in line; Goose (voiced by Joe Pantoliano) a skittish hit pelican who's hiding out from Jersey thugs after taking out the wrong bird; and Buzz (voiced by Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (voiced by David Spade) two horseflies with attitude--and an affinity for poop. But Stripes isn't cut out for farm life. Instead he has his sights set on the neighboring racetrack with hopes of running in the race himself--even if he isn't exactly a horse. With a little help from his human and farm animal friends he finally gets his chance. And loses! Oh I'm just kidding.
Although the human actors do an adequate job maintaining the core emotional element of the film especially the sweet-cheeked Panettiere (Raising Helen) it's the animal characters that keep Racing Stripes entertaining. Muniz is earnest enough as the enthusiastic Stripes while the sugary Mandy Moore voices his love interest Sandy a local show jumper horse. Veterans Hoffman who finds his inner horse as the crabby Tucker and Goldberg who does the maternal goat thing very well both handle their animal chores with aplomb. The ever-country hick Jeff Foxworthy and the lackadaisical Snoop Dogg also make vocal appearances as a none-too-bright rooster (are there any other kind?) and lazy bloodhound respectively. But it's Joey Pants as Goose the incompetent gangster pelican on the lam and Spade and Harvey as the quippy espresso-lovin' dung-wallowing horseflies who steal the show.
They always say its hardest to work with animals and children so director Frederik Du Chau (Quest for Camelot) really had his work cut out for him working with real zebras something which has never really been attempted before because of the animal's flighty temperament. Apparently a zebra's nature is rooted in a fight-or-flight response stemming from the fact they are chased by predators in the wild. Makes sense but training them to race around a track? Sounds like a nightmare shoot. Plus Stripes was played by no less than eight different "adolescent" zebras. Yikes. Du Chau pulls it off however. You're sitting there with the best of them cheering our hero on as he runs his big race oblivious to how they made it all happen. Overall it's just too bad that unlike its cousin Babe Racing Stripes has to go for the same tired and cheesy formula of an underdog proving himself rather than creating a tender story of a zebra making his way on a Kentucky horse farm.